Uruguay was not part of our plans when we first visited South America, but things don’t always go as planned when you travel. Chile’s Chaiten volcano erupted while we were visiting Argentina, shattering our dreams of flying to Bariloche. So, with an extra week at hand and no other plans, we decided to visit some places around Buenos Aires. This is how we ended up taking a trip to Colonia del Sacramento, a small city located on the Uruguayan side of the Rio de la Plata, just a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires.
A Little History
Colonia, as locals call it, was founded by the Portuguese in 1680 as a fortress city and smuggling port. Its strategic position made Colonia the object of many disputes. Over the centuries the remote little city changed hands several times between Spain, Portugal and Britain. Finally, in 1828 Colonia del Sacramento won its independence and officially became part of Uruguay.
Reaching Colonia from Buenos Aires is fairly easy. There are several companies that operate ferries on this route. The most popular and fastest one is Buquebus, which departs from the ferry terminal in Puerto Madero. The terminal is very modern, with all the amenities of a small airport or cruise ship terminal. There is is a check in, a baggage claim area, a snack bar and a couple of shops. The fastest crossing takes one hour and the slow service takes three hours. The ferry is very comfortable and has a duty free shop and a small snack bar. You have a choice between first class and tourist class. Seats are not assigned, so you can choose to sit wherever you please. To reserve your tickets you will need your passport. Also, you’ll have to be at the terminal one hour before departure.
Visiting the City
Once you arrive in Colonia and step out from the ferry terminal, there is a tourist information booth where you can stop for a map. From there you take a sharp left onto the street that runs along the river bank. Truth is that it’s hard to call it a river, exactly, because the Río de la Plata estuary is so large that it looks more like a sea.
The best part of Colonia is just wandering the streets of the Barrio Histórico (historic quarter). So before visiting the museums or the monuments, you should take a stroll and enjoy the town’s atmosphere, people and pets.There are plenty of unleashed but friendly dogs roaming through the historic district in Colonia. And if you don’t object, they may offer to ramble with you through the neighborhoods. The old town of Colonia, which holds the main attractions, is quite compact and doesn’t take too long to explore.
Colonia’s small cobbled streets and squares inspire a wide variety of photography. From beautiful old building, to vintage cars from the 1930s and 1940s, and quaint, little shops tucked away in the most inconspicuous places, the old town is a photographer’s paradise. The Spanish and Portuguese influences are very visible all throughout the city, in the lighthouses, churches and the fortified walls.
One of the historic landmarks that shouldn’t be missed in Colonia are the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco, dating back to the 17th century. The convent burned down in the 18th century, but many of the old walls are still standing and can be visited.
El Faro, the beautiful lighthouse that towers over the ruins, was built some years later from stones actually taken from the ruins of the convent.
Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento (Basilica of the Sacred Sacrament) is the only church within the city walls. It is also the oldest church in Uruguay. That is most likely the reason why most visitors feel compelled to visit it. The church is beautiful, but very simple and conservative.
The historic quarter of Colonia was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Colonia’s museums are in the historic district, within a very short distance of one another. Some of them are located in old buildings that have been renovated and really worth a look. The Portuguese Museum, housed in an 18th century building, features furniture, weaponry, and old maps of the area. There is also the Tile Museum and Colonia’s Indigenous Museum, both housed in 19th century buildings. The Historic Spanish Museum displays a collection of works of art, vintage weapons and replica costumes from the 17th and 18 century.
There are many great restaurants in Colonia de Sacramento where tourists love to eat. Considering the overwhelming abundance of cows and farmland around Colonia, that should come as no surprise. The beef, the eggs, the vegetables and all the other ingredients used for preparing the dishes in restaurants come from one of the local farms. Also, due to the city’s proximity to the water, there is no shortage of fresh fish and seafood. The food in Colonia is very similar to Argentina: grilled meats, empanadas, pasta, and lots of tapas.
Since many restaurants cater to tourists they accept foreign currency or credit cards, but it’s a good idea to check the payment options before ordering.
Colonia is a very clean and safe place and the people we met there were all very friendly. The visit here was a wonderful change of pace from the busy Buenos Aires. This is a great day trip and I would highly recommend.
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